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How-To Festival Preview: Appreciating Classical Music


The most frequent statement made to me, after I introduce myself as someone who works in classical radio is, “I don’t know anything about classical music, but...”This statement is typically followed by an expression of love for classical music, a short story about playing clarinet in band during middle school, or how a parent or grandparent always had classical radio on in the background at home. All three are valid experiences that have nothing to do with actually knowing something about music. Our enjoyment of music (or paintings, food, clothes, colors, etc.) has very little to do with academics, and everything to do with aesthetics. You either like it or you don’t. 


An appreciation of classical music should start with a very basic human response of “I like this” or “I don’t like this.” You may hate Beethoven, but love Bach. Neither statement is empirical. 


But finding what you like from 500 years of music can be daunting. On Saturday at 1 p.m., as part of the How-To Festival at the Louisville Free Public Library, I’ll give a few pointers on appreciating classical music (in 45 minutes!). Here’s a teaser for Saturday’s session, “How to appreciate classical music."

What is a concerto? It can feature one soloist (like a piano, violin, cello, etc.) or several soloists (flute and violin, or piano, violin and cello). There is a conversation between the soloist(s) and the orchestra. Concertos are for the soloist(s) to show off their skills.

If you like concertos, you’ll like: Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, and Mozart and Beethoven’s piano concertos.  Brahms wrote an amazing concerto for violin and cello. Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto is fun to watch and hear.


How do I listen to a symphony? A symphony can be the name for a group of musicians (a.k.a. an orchestra) or a musical composition. Most composers wrote/write symphonies. There isn’t much of a standard these days, though in the classical and romantic periods there were a few more accepted norms on how to write a symphony.

When you listen to a symphony, be aware of melodies that recur. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is a good example. It starts like this,then after some time the famous melody returns like this,and then again towards the end.

Symphonies don’t mean anything (like blue, apples, love, etc). They’re abstract. You can ascribe any meaning, or not at all. It’s just music. When you listen to a symphony don’t worry about remembering all the music, or “understanding” what it means - just enjoy the ride.


Daniel Gilliam is program director for WUOL, one of WFPL's sister stations. He'll give a presentation on appreciating classical music during How-To Festival on Saturday at the main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library, 301 York St.

Daniel Gilliam is Program Director for LPM Classical. Email Daniel at dgilliam@lpm.org.